The Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Rohan Thomson
In the past few months, the Australian Capital Territory passed a milestone. For the first time, the number of people in prison passed 100 per 100,000 population. The most recent national figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics give a rate of 96.2, but the number of prisoners reached 340 in September, giving a rate of 115.
Because of this, the ACT is close to passing another milestone. Canberra's long-standing position of having the lowest rate of imprisonment in Australia looks set to change, with Tasmania's and Victoria's rate of about 120 prisoners per 100,000 population close to being ''bettered''.
As the only jurisdiction still using weekend imprisonment, and 50 to 60 people serving such a sentence at any one time, the ACT is arguably now more punitive than Victoria and Tasmania. What has caused this dramatic change? The opening of the Alexander Maconochie Centre seems to have contributed, as the number of prisoners has increased inexorably since then, albeit with some fluctuation as would be expected in a small jurisdiction, some of it seasonal.
But prisons aren't a vacuum that nature abhors. Someone sends people to prison, either on remand in custody, under sentence or for breach of parole. As the prison was not built with the capacity for this number of people, what can be done about it? This is a difficult question to address if the causes of the increase are not known. The ACT does not publish statistics on bail decisions, nor in sufficient detail on sentencing or parole to enable an understanding. Nor does the ACT have a criminology research department like the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in NSW and there is little interest in the territory's criminal justice system in Canberra's universities.
However, one thing that is well-known about the ACT is the very high proportion of prisoners who are on remand in custody, awaiting a determination of guilt, or awaiting sentence. In the ABS June statistics, 30 per cent of the ACT's prisoners were on remand, compared with about 20 per cent in Tasmania and Victoria.
Undoubtedly Canberra's slow courts are partly responsible. Reducing Canberra's remand population could reduce the demand for prison beds by more than 30.
While the number of remand prisoners has decreased slightly since the AMC opened, the number of sentenced prisoners has increased substantially, and the reasons are not known. Other jurisdictions sometimes use court cells or watchhouse cells to cope with full prisons. For people likely to spend only a day or two in custody, this might be practical, but tends to be expensive and the facilities in such places can be poor.
In fact in recent years the opposite has occurred in the ACT, with police transferring people under arrest to the AMC on weekends without first going in front of a magistrate if it looks like they will be in the watchhouse for more than the statutory 36-hour limit.
Home detention or curfews with electronic monitoring has been a popular method of trying to reduce the prison population. It is used elsewhere as an alternative to remand in custody, as a sentencing option instead of prison, or as part of post-prison supervision with or without early release. The ACT introduced home detention as a sentencing option in 2001, but uptake was slow and just five people served such orders in 2002-03 and 2003-04, making it a very expensive option. In 2004-05 its scope was extended to Commonwealth offences and also to unconvicted or unsentenced people, and 41 were put on home detention. However, by the following year, it had been abolished due to poor uptake.
The technology for electronic monitoring has advanced greatly since then, but the ACT's complex sentencing system would present challenges to the inclusion of home detention as an option. Experience also suggests that some people subject to home detention would not have been going to the AMC anyway and the tougher conditions increase the risk of people breaching and ending up in prison.
So 10 people on home detention isn't necessarily 10 prison beds saved and probably eventuates to less than half that.
Recidivism may be one elephant in the room and measures to reduce reoffending could have rapid and long-term effects on the imprisonment rate. The ACT's innovative Throughcare project might just do that. Indigenous people make up about one in six of Canberra' prisoners and the Ngunnawal Bush Healing Farm near Tharwa may also help.
Prison is expensive and doesn't work to reduce crime. In fact, unnecessary and lengthy remand in custody has the opposite effect, with defendants potentially losing jobs, housing and community support. Many are subsequently not convicted and others are sentenced to community penalties - a criminologist's rule of thumb is one-third acquitted, one-third imprisoned and one-third receiving probation-style orders. Some of the unique features of the ACT's criminal justice system probably mean that rule of thumb does not apply here.
The ACT needs to engage in robust research to understand the drivers of its prison population, not engage in blue-sky navel-gazing by stakeholders. Canberra used to be proud of having the lowest rate of imprisonment in Australia and proud of its use of alternatives to imprisonment, with no detrimental effect on its crime rate. Now it seems it is becoming just like everywhere else.
- Peter Marshall is a former criminologist with the British Home Office and the Western Australian Department of Justice, specialising in corrections.